Aroma kits open up a new world for wine and whisky lovers
Nobody knows for sure how many aromas the human nose can detect, but a study conducted at New York's Rockefeller University, the results of which were published last year, estimates it is about a trillion.
This raises the bar considerably from the previously widely assumed 10,000 - but mercifully even that figure is much more than the number you need to be able to identify to properly appreciate a glass of fine wine or spirit, or a good cup of coffee. We experience all of those much more with our olfactory systems than with our tongues, which convey only a limited number of simple taste sensations.
"We generally don't train our senses to recognise aromas, which is probably what people struggle most with when they start tasting wine, because they haven't built up a catalogue of associations that come readily," says Amanda Longworth, head of marketing and wine services at Berry Bros & Rudd Hong Kong, who also runs the wine merchant's education programmes.
"Some people are better at it than others, but it's a matter of practice. You build up a catalogue of associations in your mind connected to what you can smell in the wine."
For more than 30 years wine educators have used aroma kits - collections of small bottles or vials containing essences of aromas to be found in wine - to help students identify and remember particular scents.
The pioneer in this field was Jean Lenoir, who started out teaching wine courses using a 120 aroma kit, and then founded the publishing company Editions Jean Lenoir, which in 1981 produced a stripped-down 54 aroma Le Nez Du Vin "Masterkit", presented with illustrations and explanatory text in the form of what he called a "book-object".
Aromas in the kit were divided into 23 fruity notes, 15 vegetal notes, seven toasty notes, six floral notes and three animal notes.
Essentially, Lenoir had adapted an idea from the world of perfume for the world of wine, and it quickly caught on. The Masterkit became the first industry-standard aroma reference kit, and is the one Longworth uses for the courses she teaches, along with ancillary products which Editions Jean Lenoir has since introduced.
"They have other kits, such as oak kits and faults kits which can be useful, particularly with faults kits, because a lot of people don't know what faults smell like. They've never specifically smelled cork taint, although perhaps they've had a corked wine in the past and didn't know quite what was wrong with it. It really helps with identification," she says.
Aroma kits are not cheap, and until recently were probably used almost exclusively in classrooms and by a few serious wine course students who wanted to be able to refer to them at home.
Increasingly, however, a wider public with a more than casual interest in their favourite drinks has been buying for home use, and both Editions Jean Lenoir and competitors with their own variations on Lenoir's basic concept have extended their ranges.
Editions Jean Lenoir has diversified into spirits and coffee kits with Le Nez Du Whisky (also 54 aromas), Le Nez De l'Armagnac (just 12), and Le Nez Du Café (two different kits of 36 each and a starter kit with six).
AWSEC offers Le Nez Du Vin kits through its website, with discounted prices for students starting at HK$3,000 awsec.com
Aromaster's 88 aroma kit is endorsed by Debra Meiburg MW, and the same company offers similar products for whisky, cognac, beer, sake, coffee and cigars, and will also assemble customised kits for which you can select your own aromas. The wine kit is available from Montrose montrose.com.hk for HK$2,950.
The Aroma Academy, a UK-based operation selling kits and also conducting aroma education programmes, is represented in Hong Kong by Jon Dory, whose owner John Rhodes' particular passion is for whisky, but which also carries the company's wine and gin kits.
The wine and whisky aroma kits are available in 12- and 24-bottle versions, while the gin aroma kit only has 24. Rhodes says the 12-bottle kits make good but quite limited introductions to the drinks' aroma profiles, and advises going for the 24s.
"The Aroma Academy kits work in a different way [to Le Nez Du Whisky]. You can create a basic whisky profile using four or five different aromas and those aromas sit on strips. They're like scent strips for perfume. It's not just a question of deconstructing a whisky profile into individual aromas - it's putting them together so you can pick them out when they're mixed in with other aromas," says Rhodes.
Both Rhodes and Longworth recommend kits not just for home study, but also for home entertainment.
"You have to learn the kit first. That's the first step, and you're way better off if you involve somebody else. Challenge each other, play it like a game and you'll learn it a lot quicker," says Rhodes.
"You use it as a home education kit first, but at dinner parties you can take it out and treat it as a game - who can smell what?" adds Longworth. "Everyone finds it interesting because how often do we really smell things? We take that sense for granted a bit."
Although the cost of aroma kits usually works out equivalent to that of a few nice bottles of wine or whisky, Rhodes argues they are good investments.
"The standard [whisky] 24 aroma kit costs HK$1,480 and people say 'That's expensive' - but are you going to get the same level of knowledge from buying two bottles of Scotch for about the same money? When I point that out to people they do see the value," says Rhodes.
Properly looked after, aroma kits will continue to be a viable sensory reference for a long time.
"You do have to treat them with care," says Longworth. "If you have a faults kit, you do have to keep it away from the Masterkit, because the aromas can permeate each other. We've been using the same kit for nearly six years and it's still fine."
Rhodes says his Aroma Academy studies have taken him beyond refining his whisky appreciation, and opened up another dimension of the world.
"I started paying much more attention to what I was smelling when I ate, and when I was walking down the street. It opens up a whole new world around you."